Museum curators who document current events—like we do at the New-York Historical Society through our History Responds collecting initiative—experience the moment just like everyone else. And, when it comes to traumatic events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the COVID-19 pandemic, we sometimes face the very challenges that we’re describing through the items we collect.
The past year of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a fraught one for Asian Americans, who have faced increased harassment, stigmatization, and violence. As an Asian American myself, the stress of witnessing and experiencing xenophobia and hearing about terrible incidents around the city has lingered in the background as I did my job. Asian Americans aren’t typically represented in museum and archival collections and, as a result, are often absent from standard accounts of U.S. history. So what does it even mean to document the American experience for future historians when people who look like me are under attack?
Starting last spring, I worked to make the Asian American experience of the pandemic visible and accessible to future generations through History Responds. To celebrate this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month—and in anticipation of many more to come—below is a selection of highlights.
Heart of Dinner volunteer, Decorated delivery bag, 2020. Mixed media, paper bags. History Responds Collecting Initiative
Heart of Dinner Delivery Bags
New Yorkers banded together in countless grassroots initiatives to address the social and economic challenges wrought by the pandemic. These decorated paper bags come from Heart of Dinner, a group founded in early April 2020 by Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang that delivers culturally appropriate warm meals and groceries to homebound, elderly Asian Americans in Chinatown, Brooklyn, and Queens. Their emphasis is on providing packages that express the care of the community, so that these elders feel emotionally nourished as well. Tsai, who is co-owner of Kopitiam, a Malaysian cafe on East Broadway, and Chang, her life partner, wanted to not only help elders but support Chinatown restaurants that suffered due to pandemic-related xenophobia, and even further under the shutdown. To stay afloat during the downturn, Heart of Dinner’s restaurant partners could pivot to preparing the hot meals.
Local volunteers decorate the paper delivery bags with heartwarming illustrations. Supporters from around the world write notes in Chinese and Korean with messages like “We love you; we are thinking of you” that are stapled to the bags. From the procurement and preparation of food, to the bags, to the notes, to the crew that deliver the meals, Heart of Dinner’s project incorporates many layers of care.
Welcome to Chinatown, manufacturer; Harry Trinh, designer. 88 Lanzhou restaurant tote bag, 2020. Cotton, ink. History Responds Collecting Initiative. Photo courtesy Welcome to Chinatown.
Welcome to Chinatown Tote Bag
Welcome to Chinatown is a grassroots organization that formed in March 2020 in response to the massive decrease in foot traffic that Chinatown began experiencing in January and February. Among its many projects aimed at preserving the neighborhood’s vitality, the group designs and creates fundraising merchandise in collaboration with restaurants and other businesses to help keep them from shuttering. Even though 88 Lan Zhou, famed for its Fujianese hand-pulled noodles and dumplings, announced its closure last October, Welcome to Chinatown released this already-in-progress tote bag to help with the closing costs.
Shuji Bon Yagi, Protest sign, 2020. Cardboard, marker, wood. History Responds Collecting Initiative, Gift of the maker
Restaurant Industry Relief Protest Sign
Entrepreneur Bon Yagi was a prime mover behind the creation of Little Tokyo in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. Now chairman of the New York Japanese Restaurant Association, his first restaurant in New York was an American-style, 24-hour diner called 103 Second Avenue. Known for its sloppy Joes, it was next door to the Saint, a gay megaclub, and drew the artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the actor John Belushi in as clientele. When he opened his first Japanese restaurant, Hasaki, in 1984, he hoped to broaden New Yorkers’ understandings of Japanese food. Today, he owns 13 specialty restaurants serving everything from shabu shabu to curry, sake, and desserts. When the city prohibited indoor dining last March, his company had to lay off over 300 employees. This protest sign arguing for economic relief is one of three that Yagi made to march with staff in the Rally to Save the Restaurant Industry organized last December by the New York State Latino Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge Association.
Ansel Oomen, Silent Spring, 2020. Hand-cut adhesive labels on paper. History Responds Collecting Initiative, Gift of the Artist
Last March, Ansel Oomen, a clinical laboratory technologist at New-York Presbyterian hospital, volunteered for training to test samples for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Working for 20 nights straight and isolated in a new, dedicated lab, Oomen fielded calls from clinicians anxious for patient results as he saw the positivity numbers grow before his eyes. Fatigued and heavy with the psychological weight of his task, he turned to an activity that has given him solace in the past: artmaking.
This hand-cut collage is made from biohazard labels found on his laboratory desk. Silent Spring, named after the book by influential environmentalist Rachel Carson, alludes to the quietude of the city under quarantine. Instead of a natural world devastated by pesticides, as Carson describes, here is a world without humans, giving animals the chance to emerge.
KP Mendoza, Protest sign, 2020. Posterboard, marker. History Responds Collecting Initiative, Gift of the maker. Photo courtesy KP Mendoza
Black Lives Matter Protest Sign
KP Mendoza was a recent nursing school graduate working in the surgical and transplant intensive care unit of a major New York City hospital when, late last March, his unit converted into a COVID-only ICU. While he says what he experienced “was nothing remotely intense as Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, it was really sad to see that many people die.” Many were Black and Latino and Mendoza created this sign to carry at a Black Lives Matter protest in solidarity.
Jessica Ng, Protest sign, 2020. Marker on posterboard. History Responds Collecting Initiative, Gift of the maker
Stop the Hate Protest Sign
Though national attention to assaults has grown in the past few months, Asian Americans started reporting increased harassment and violence in the early days of the pandemic and began organizing protests last summer. On July 14, 2020, two people assaulted an 89-year-old Chinese American woman in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and set the back of her shirt on fire. She went to her local police precinct to report the incident, but they declined to investigate it as a hate crime. William Lex Ham, an actor who had been organizing solidarity marches with Black Lives Matter activists, joined with rapper China Mac to organize protests around the incident.
Competitive Muay Thai fighter Jessica Ng created this protest sign for a march on August 15, 2020, from Washington Square Park through Chinatown to the New York Police Department’s 7th precinct, where the Hate Crime Task Force is based. Her message of social resistance, “This one fights back,” also conveys her ability to physically combat any attacker.
New York Tougher Than Ever, maker. Various Key tags, manufacturer. Key tag, 2021. Acrylic, metal. History Responds Collecting Initiative. Photo: New York Tougher Than Ever
“Stop Asian Hate” Key Tag
“Stop Asian Hate,” emblazoned on this key tag by the project New York Tougher Than Ever, emerged in February 2021 as a social media hashtag to raise awareness on incidents of violence against Asians. Its use grew to become the name of a broader movement. Fashion designer Phillip Lim and creative director Ruba Abu-Nimah launched New York Tougher Than Ever in July 2020 to fundraise for underserved communities through sales of limited-edition sweatshirts, totes, and other items. Responding to the events of the moment, they’ve directed funds to causes like Black Lives Matter, relief efforts following the Beirut explosion, and get-out-the-vote initiatives. In early March, they released key tags like this one to raise awareness about violence against Asians and fundraise for community organizations through the GoFundMe AAPI Community Fund, which Lim helped the platform establish.
Written by Rebecca Klassen, associate curator of material culture